Over the past year, the property has become a battleground. Local builder URSA Development is proposing a high-rise project for the land adjacent to the Ninth Street Light Rail Station. But a passionate group of park and open space activists want the property - which they don't own - to be acquired by the city for recreational and park space.
Proposed for 900-912 Monroe St., the total buildout would have 125 units of residential housing, 163 parking spaces for cars, and a 15,000 square-foot public park. There would also be 7,424 square feet of retail space. The Ursa Development group is headed by Michael Sciarra and Mark Settembre, who currently have an option to buy the property.
On Wednesday, the Zoning Board met again to consider giving five variances to the development.
Since the beginning of Hoboken's building boom, development issues have always been heated in Hoboken. As much of a passionate issue as they are for citizens, they're just as passionate an issue for the builders who have invested millions of dollars into these properties.
In the middle of Wednesday's Zoning Board meeting, at the back of the City Council chambers, Settembre was walking toward the hallway and cursed at former Zoning Board Chairman John Branciforte. Branciforte was replaced on the board not long ago and has since been publicly critical of the URSA's project.
A short but loud verbal argument was instigated by Settembre, and then, an unknown person who was with Settembre had to be physically separated from Branciforte.
Bad day for developer
Things certainly didn't go as planned for URSA at Wednesday's hearing.
Nearly all the testimony has been wrapped up for the application and it was just about time for final statements and a final vote.
But a new twist arose because the Hoboken City Council, which has authority over the Zoning Board, is in the early stages of creating a nine-block 10.6 acre redevelopment zone, which would include 900 Monroe.
At the last City Council meeting, the governing body approved a resolution that gives the city permission to ask the Planning Board to begin redevelopment planning and undertake a "blight study."
Redevelopment, according to state law, is a zoning term that means there is an area within the municipality that is not being used to its full potential.
Designating a redevelopment site can mean special zoning. But it also puts a significant amount of power in the purview of the city's governing body, which in Hoboken's case is the City Council. This means the City Council pools a large area of property together, even if the land is owned multiple owners, and then zones the property however they wish.
If they want to buy a property, they can resort to eminent domain and force the owner to sell it to them. About three weeks ago, Mayor David Roberts presented a sweeping open space initiative. One of the biggest components of the plan was to create a redevelopment area that extends north of Ninth Street along the light rail tracks. According to Roberts, the area could yield 5.5 acres of open space and a community center with a permanent swimming pool, basketball courts, and other amenities, paid for by the zone's designated developer. With the parks would come some number of high-rise, high-density residential developments.
Attorney Jonathan Drill of Stickel, Koenig & Sullivan, who has been hired by Hoboken Resident Leah Healey to oppose the project, argued at Wednesday's zoning meeting that since the City Council is taking steps towards redevelopment, if the zoning board were to grant URSA five variances, it would be usurping the authority of the City Council.
"The City Council has taken a major step toward redevelopment," said Drill. He suggested that the Zoning Board either go into a holding pattern, or deny the application "without prejudice," which means that URSA could resubmit the same application at some point in the future.
Drill's argument made inroads with several board members, and especially with the board's chairman and attorney.
"It appears to me that the council is going in a certain direction," said Zoning Board Attorney Douglass Burn. He added that approving the project now might "frustrate the goals [of the City Council]."
The developers' attorney, Jack Arseneault of the Chatham-based Arseneault, Fassett & Mariano, argued the redevelopment planning is a long process, and that the Zoning Board should vote on the application that is before them.
"The [City Council] resolution passed but it did not authorize an immediate blight study," Arseneault said. He said the City Council has 180 days to request a blight study. "Right now, there's a lot of hypothetical 'ifs,' " said Arseneault. " 'If' there's a [blight] study, 'if' there's a redevelopment plan."
He added that the redevelopment project is a lengthy one, and denying this project and waiting for the council could act would be an unfair burden on the developer.
On Wednesday, Zoning Board member Jim Perry, made a motion to deny the application without prejudice. The motion failed by vote of 3-4.
Then the board said it will give lawyers time to prepare briefs arguing whether the Zoning Board can vote on the application. A Zoning Board hearing has been scheduled for March 9 to make arguments.
May get to develop anyway
But even if the Zoning Board denies URSA's application on March 9, the firm has a second opportunity to develop that site. At the last City Council meeting, there was a resolution passed that created "memorandum of understanding" which gives URSA Development and New York-based Tarragon Realty Investors Inc. exclusive three-year rights to negotiate with the city if a redevelopment area is created.
Many of the activists, as well as some members of the City Council minority, thought it was odd that the city would give a developer exclusive negotiating rights for three years before the property is even blighted and the redevelopment agency even discusses in a public forum what it wants.
Normally, there are three steps in the redevelopment process. The first is a designation of a redevelopment area. The second is the establishment of a redevelopment plan. And the final step is the designation of a developer to build in the redevelopment area.
According to representatives for Tarragon and URSA, there are several reasons the city should enter into exclusive negotiations. First, URSA owns or is in contract to buy 63 percent of the 11-acre proposed redevelopment area. In return for the exclusivity agreement, they will not develop an approximately 1-acre piece of property, which they own, that is directly adjacent to the proposed redevelopment zone. They will donate that property to the city and pay up to $5 million dollars for construction of the 25,000 square-foot community center. If the council doesn't give URSA exclusive negotiating rights, then the community center is off the table, say URSA's lawyers.
Still important, though
Why then is the Zoning Board approval for 900 Monroe so important?
It's simple: Right now the property is zoned industrial, which means that it is not worth nearly as much as if it were zoned residential. If the Zoning Board grants URSA five variances, then the property will be up-zoned from industrial to high-rise residential, which would, overnight, increase the value of the land by millions of dollars. So if the city does complete a blight study, and does decide to go into a redevelopment plan, the City Council would have to pay more to acquire the property.
Also, the public has shown its willingness to hire their own attorneys and fight development battles in court. It's certainly conceivable that a member of the public or even rival developers might go into court to attempt to reverse the "memorandum of exclusivity" on the grounds that redevelopment process is not being followed properly.
Until three weeks ago, the press and the public were not officially made aware that the administration was drawing up plans for a large redevelopment area on the city's west side. When Mayor David Roberts presented his plans to the public, they showed detailed drawings of a concept plan for the redevelopment zone. The drawings included high-rise buildings, 5.5 acres of open space, and a community center with a pool. At the bottom of the drawings, it reads that it has been prepared for "Tarragon-URSA." The renderings were generated by Gruzen Samton, who are the architects for Tarragon/URSA's other projects in Hoboken. Now park activists are questioning whether the redevelopment plan was already a done deal before the public even knew it existed.
According the Redevelopment Handbook, a guide to redevelopment that was commissioned by the state Department of Community Affairs, public participation is one of the most important parts of creating a redevelopment plan.
"It certainly seems like we are now tied to this developer," said Healy, who herself is a lawyer and is an expert in New Jersey Redevelopment process. She added that by entering into an exclusivity agreement, the city has de facto designated a developer, which is supposed to happen toward the end of the process, not at the beginning.